Its been 38 years since King Hassan II of Morocco ordered the Green March, when 350,000 Moroccans escorted by some 20,000 Moroccan troops marched into the territory that was then the Spanish Sahara. When the former colonial power vacated the territory, it left behind a whole lot of trouble, a war that lasted more than a decade and a half, and political tension that would persist to this day.
The territory was claimed by Morocco as theirs while the newly founded Polisario Front, backed by Algeria fought for an independent Sahrawi republic. Tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees fled the Moroccan-annexed territory to settle in refugee camps run by the Polisario in southern Algeria. Over the years many have returned to their homes in what is now Morocco's Southern Province, where the Moroccan government helps them find lodging and employment.
Still many families remain separated as thousands of others are still trapped in a political limbo as Morocco and the Polisario failed to reach an equitable agreement amid ongoing efforts by the US and the UN to reach a diplomatic solution. Meanwhile the Sahrawi refugees continue to exist in what is most likely the harshest living conditions on the planet.
But a lot of sand has passed through the hourglass since then and much has changed in the world, in Morocco and in the former Spanish colony.
Not least among these changes is the ascension to the throne of King Mohammed VI, upon the death of his father.
The new king came to the throne with new ideas and the will to make of Morocco an example for the rest of the Arab world when it comes to human rights, openness, individual freedom and reforms.
It was not an easy job for the young king who inherited a heavy burden from his father along with a discreetly repressive political system. The tourists, after all, were not to be frightened away but local politics were at times hazardous.
If the tourists were not to be harassed, the prisons on the other hand were full, the police were brutal and human rights were practically non-existent. But King Mohammed VI persevered and turned Morocco into a very different country than the one his father ruled.
Addressing the nation on the 38th anniversary of the Green March, the king stressed Morocco's commitments and achievements on human rights, noting the openness and freedom enjoyed by Moroccans in the Southern Provinces as well as in the north.
"Our aim is to see the Moroccan citizen properly honored, endowed with the attributes of full-fledged citizenship," he said. "It is in this spirit that we have undertaken a series of profound reforms and major projects," including the establishment of national institutions and regional bodies for the protection and promotion of human rights that are "known for their independence and credibility."
King Mohammed VI rejected attempts by adversaries "to undermine Morocco's reputation" and ignore its progress on freedom and human rights. He pledged to continue to work with human rights organizations and to reach an equitable political solution for the Western Sahara with the UN and its Special Envoy, and international partners who recognize Morocco's achievements.
The king vowed to build on those achievements and on Morocco's investment in the Southern Provinces by adopting the new regional development model proposed for increased economic and political autonomy. This is "an integrated developmental vision, based on an objective analysis of the current situation in our Southern Provinces... to make them a space for integrated development, instrumental in providing a dignified life for the people of the region."
King Mohammed VI reiterated Morocco's commitment to helping other African countries achieve the same dignity and human rights progress through continued cooperation "and active solidarity with these countries...."
He also noted that Morocco's commitment to human rights extends to African immigrants, through Morocco's "new comprehensive policy on immigration and asylum issues, based on a humanitarian approach in line with our country's international commitments and respectful of the rights of immigrants."
The king stressed Morocco's "sincere commitment" to promoting peace and the rule of law in Africa, most recently through its "support for our sister country Mali in its fight against extremist and terrorist groups."
Indeed, it is largely thanks to the reforms instituted by the king that Morocco has been so successful in avoiding the political upheaval facing other countries in the region.
Claude Salhani is a political analyst specializing in the Middle East and North Africa. He tweets @claudesalhani.com.